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Monday 14th August 2012

Statement on Avaaz’s Role in Evacuation of Journalists from Syria

Responding to our own and others’ questions regarding Avaaz’s precise role and contribution to the evacuation of Paul Conroy and Javier Espinosa from Baba Amr in Syria, we have conducted a thorough investigation. This statement summarizes the results. Overall, we have concluded that Avaaz made several contributions to communications support and planning leading up to the evacuation, but that the evacuation itself was chaotic, and the plan we had helped develop was only used in small part. Our staff made statements during an initial 24 hour period, when the facts on the ground were extremely unclear, that contained one honest inaccuracy and one honest omission. But we have throughout been scrupulously truthful within our knowledge, and every statement and interview we gave placed central focus on the actions and bravery of the Syrian people in the evacuation. 

Full Statement:    

Three of the four journalists trapped in Baba Amr had gone there after being briefed and connected to Syrian activist networks by Avaaz. In response to a request for help from Paul Conroy's employer following the shelling of the media center, Avaaz first contributed to the evacuation by creating a communications hub in Beirut where messages were relayed among many of the journalists, activists, family members, governments and employers concerned. Dozens of Beirut-based journalists, diplomats and activists confirm this. 

While it’s hard to identify precise added value in a situation with unclear decision making, there were several examples of potentially valuable input. For example, our Beirut-based campaigner Wissam Tarif identified from local sources a change in the pattern of Syrian shelling, consulted military experts, and accurately warned the media center activists of an imminent ground invasion that made an evacuation urgent. Miles Amoore of the Times of London was involved in this and confirms this account. We were unable to discover whether similar warnings came at the same time from other sources. Tarif also served as a key go-between between the Syrian government and the media center activists in attempting to arrange the evacuation of the journalists via the Red Cross. In addition, Tarif arranged with another well-known activist, Abu Afif, to wait outside Baba Amr with vehicles ready to take the journalists to the border, and let activists in Baba Amr know when they were in place. Abu Afif confirms this account. Tarif also arranged with Lebanese authorities to send ambulences to the border.

But while most of our team’s contribution was in the planning and discussions leading up to the evacuation, the evacuation itself, after being attacked, became chaotic, and the plan we had helped develop went largely unused.  

Paul Conroy has stated that he did not see anyone from Avaaz until the end of his rescue. That is true, and we never claimed to have anyone on the ground, having stressed at every stage that the operation was carried out by Syrians and that our role was an external communications support role. Conroy’s editor Ray Miles and close colleague Miles Amoore asked Avaaz to play this role and worked alongside the Avaaz team for over a week on Paul’s behalf.

Paul has also stated at times that the Free Syrian Army alone were responsible for his rescue. We were unable to verify this account, with eyewitnesses like Javier Espinosa reporting that while FSA were present in the large column of escaping journalists and wounded, Paul himself was taken to and through the Baba Amr tunnel by activists from the media center, not the FSA. After working with Avaaz staff and his own colleagues to clarify the facts on events, Paul sent a statement and emails to Avaaz thanking the activists involved and Avaaz for the efforts on his behalf. It should be recognized that it is sometimes but not always straightforward to distinguish between armed opposition and activists in Syria.

While precise events are still both unclear and disputed, they were particularly unclear in the first 24 hours after the evacuation. The French President at that time declared Edith Bouvier free when in fact she was still in Baba Amr. Over that difficult time, Avaaz staff issued statements that conveyed one honest inaccuracy and one honest omission about what had happened. 

First, in an initial statement entitled “Syrian Activists Free Paul Conroy”, our staff claimed that Avaaz had played a coordinating role among the activists involved. Our Beirut team leader honestly thought that the plan we had coordinated had been used, when in fact the chaos of the attack meant it was only used in small part. However, we quickly identified the uncertainty around our role within hours and before doing any media, and have never claimed in the media that Avaaz ‘coordinated’ the rescue. This is clear from several articles and interviews that day in reputable news publications. Only one online article, by Simon van Zuylen Wood for the New Republic website, claims that Wissam Tarif made that claim, but does not provide a direct quote, and contains other inaccuracies and misleading information that have since been partially corrected. 

Secondly, we attributed the evacuation solely to the work of Syrian activists, omitting mention of the FSA. It’s clear that Syrian activists from the Baba Amr media center played a central role in the most dangerous andsignificant part of the rescue – the evacuation from Baba Amr. However we were unaware of the key role later played by the Free Syrian Army in transporting Conroy and Espinosa to the Lebanese border, or of the fact that FSA were part of the column that passed through the Baba Amr tunnel. This was not made clear by Paul or Javier when they spoke to our staff upon arrival in Lebanon, and since we don’t keep links to armed groups, we were genuinely unaware at the time of the FSA’s role.

We have sought at every stage to do the hard work to understand the events surrounding the evacuation and to be scrupulously truthful in our statements about it. Our Executive Director has personally interviewed the activists and journalists involved at length to get a fully accurate picture. We made the honest mistake and omission described above, but upon discovering them, immediately corrected all of our public communications after that, and have been fully transparent about the inaccuracy and omission mentioned above with every journalist who asked us about these events, including van Zuylen-Wood.

While we are not a newspaper and have no regular publication in which to make corrections, we have now instituted a ‘corrections page’ linked from the front page of the Avaaz website, where any errors in our public communications can be found along with corrections. 

A good faith review of all of our statements and interviews clearly shows, without exception, our continuous focus on the bravery, sacrifice, and skill of the Syrians involved. Every title of every release, and every content of every interview, stressed this point, and interviews show us pushing back on journalists who implied an unjustified role and responsibility for us in the operation. Dozens of journalists in Beirut are aware of our efforts to keep news of the evacuation from breaking until all the trapped journalists were safe, but when it did break, we were not aware of anyone with knowledge of the evacuation able to speak to the media and we felt it was vital from an advocacy perspective to fill that gap to press an agenda and message on Syria and the horror of Baba Amr while the media spotlight was on the situation. Within 48 hours, others such as Paul Conroy were able to take over this important role and we stopped our media interviews on the evacuation.  

We've been saddened to see how a combination of honest misunderstandings, poor journalism, and activist drama has created a grossly distorted view of the Avaaz team's behaviour in the New Republic online article. As any journalist familiar with the Syrian opposition knows, it is unfortunately riddled with petty rivalries and conflicts, and this has been one of the key factors holding it back. At a larger level, our investigation of this event has shown how powerful and effective decentralized networks can be in allowing many hands to contribute to an outcome, but also how lines of credit and responsibility can become murky, and how careful participants must be before they claim credit or deny it to others. We are committed to this exercising this kind of care.  

We’re proud of 18 months of outstanding work by our staff and our community to support the voices of the Syrian people to reach the world in thousands of news articles assisted by citizen journalists we have supported or helped connect to the media. For almost a year, we supported this work without seeking any media to focus on our own role. Our community has donated almost $3 million for communications equipment, humanitarian aid and advocacy, and taken millions of actions including petition signatures, messages, phone calls and advocacy visits to press governments to take action to support the Syrian people. Our efforts to support democracy in Syria will continue. 

Disclaimer: We spoke with most but not all of the key people involved in the evacuation in creating this statement. Given the dire situation in Syria, the difficulty of communications, and the entirely understandable feeling among some activists in Syriathat current events are far more pressing than reviewing the past, we have been unable to consult with some of the people involved. If they agree to discuss the matter and provide us with new information, this statement may be amended.